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Analyzing Political Issues in Hannah Webster Foster's "The Coquette; or The History of Eliza Wharton"
“The Coquette; or the History of Eliza Wharton” by Hannah Webster Foster confronts the political issues of feminism and marriage. Eliza had the opportunity to make a suitable union with Mr. Boyer, but she destroyed that opportunity by being a mistress to Sanford, thereby, ruining her reputation and that of her family. Because she became pregnant outside of wedlock, she lost every opportunity for the happiness she so desperately desired.
Eliza’s role as a female in the 1700’s reflects how female children were expected to maintain “obedience to the will and desires” of their parents. Eliza was aware of this. She commented about being “thoughtful of my duty.” However, she desired joy in her life. While her parents may have wished for her happiness as well, their desires for her future were different. Eliza’s parents wanted her to make an efficacious match in marriage. They wanted her to marry “a man of worth; a man of real and substantial merit” such as Mr. Haly. When Mr. Haly died Eliza became excited about the opportunity to leave her “parental roof.” Eliza described her parents’ authority as “shackles.” Without her parents’ presence, Eliza felt freedom. It seems that Eliza deemed her parents to be her oppressors. Of course, she later comes to regret having to leave her “parental roof.” Eliza realizes that while her wishes and her parents were dissimilar, her parents were trying to protect her from the world, just as the roof of a house offers protection for its inhabitants from nature’s elements.
Foster also illustrates the female role of the time through her character’s descriptions of Eliza. Mr. Boyer described Eliza as being “a young lady whose elegant person, accomplished mind, and polished manners have been much celebrated.” He also commented that Eliza’s “gay disposition” would not be troublesome as long as there was “discretion sufficient for its regulation.” Obviously, Mr. Boyer thought that Eliza had the merits expected of a woman at the time. However, he also believed that Eliza’s gaiety would need to be suppressed or oppressed to a certain extent so that she would behave in a manner deemed appropriate by society.
Foster explores the nature of marriage through the thoughts of Mr. Boyer, Eliza, Mrs. Richman, and Sanford. Mr. Boyer may have been in love with Eliza. Yet, he explained that in considering marriage he would act “upon just and rational principles.” He also claimed that as a wife Eliza would make “a cheerful friend.” Finally, Mr. Boyer also understood the need for an “eligible situation” in order to get married. Mr. Boyer seemed to think that the decisions involved in marriage should be rational rather than based on the heart. He was concerned about finances, and he thought that marriage was more like friendship than passion. On the other hand, Eliza argued that “Marriage is the tomb of friendship.” She claimed that marriage should be about human “enjoyments.” Eliza seemed to believe that marriage was an oppressor of happiness and that it should not be. Yet, she also considered the “merit” of Mr. Boyer and his marriage proposal. Mrs. Richman explained to Eliza that Mr. Boyer had “worth,” and he could offer her a chance to be “agreeably settled.” Apparently, Mrs. Richman deemed positive financial arrangements as imperative to a happy marriage. Sanford seemed to believe that financial needs were the overarching reason for marriage. He claimed, “Whenever I do submit to be shackled, it must be from a necessity of mending my fortune.” Sanford seemed to believe that marriage was an oppressive bond that limited his freedom for enjoyment, much like Eliza.